I usually don’t watch the ABC’s Q&A as it usually annoys me, either by the gruff bullying of the host, Tony Jones, or the stupid things people say (or should that be ‘the stupid things people say on television’?). When I find myself watching it it’s more by accident than design. But one episode I did catch was a program on the issue of same-sex marriage. One guest, representing the Christian Rights Lobby, kept referring to the need of a child to have a mother and a father, as if one of both was better than two of either. I instantly felt empathy for those who only had one of either, and especially for those whose one they had wasn’t the full deal. The man annoyed me. He kept repeating the same mantra like a Flinders Street Station announcement, only clearer. This itchy-annoying feeling thing stayed with me for days. And …
In his introduction to the published script of his play PEOPLE (2012) Alan Bennett says that most of his plays start as a niggle. Yes, that’s what it is! I thought, Yes! I know exactly what he means. The CRL man left me with a niggle and scratching that niggle resulted in the short story, Watching Time. Here it is.
Sa’an sits in her little room high above the garage. It is late in the day; the leafy street is about to receive the workers coming home for the evening. She can see seven houses and she knows them all. It is the time of day she thinks of as hers. All her work is done, there will be no need for complaints; the table set, two of everything, and the dinner prepared, covered, and in the warmer. All the school children come straight home, no after school care, no quick trips to town to wait in an office, these are trusted children; they are doing their homework now, peeling potatoes, walking the dogs. Good children, older children, children can be any age, Sa’an now realises. Oh! she almost says aloud, children never stop being children. Oh.
First she sees Mr. Avenel. Tall and coated, he walks from the train with a backward leaning gait that makes him recognizable from afar. Mrs. Avenel is a teacher and will bring the children, Cinnamon and Connie, home with her in the Honda Accord. Mrs. Avenel dresses in a very modern style: matte, subdued colors with chunky jewelry made from resin. Sa’an wonders where there could be a shop that sells such jewelry, or perhaps Mrs. Avenel makes it herself. Sa’an has never thought this before and she rolls the idea over in her mind and settles it in a new place, pleased that today has added something new; but quickly attends to what is happening in her street, at the Avenel’s, she can see it like television in her head. Connie sets the table while Cinnamon prepares the vegetables. Yes, that’s right. Then they go to their room to do their homework while Mr. Avenel cooks dinner. Mrs. Avenel marks essays and makes crossword puzzles for her English class. She laughs at Mr. Avenel cooking in an apron. Whoever heard of such a thing?
Mr. Wild and Mr. Liatov have a computer business together. They live next door to each other and so arrive home together in Mr. Wild’s ute. Sometimes they use Mr. Liatov’s Toyota Camry. Mrs. Wild is always with them: she does the books and office work. Mr. Wild is a keen gardener and not long after getting home he is out in the front garden tending to it, staring at it, even talking to it sometimes. He is in a world of his own. Mrs. Wild prepares dinner and checks on their only child, Patty, who is a very quiet girl who loves birds and has many books and photographs in her room of birds from all over the world. She does not keep birds in cages: she thinks this is barbaric. Why would you do such a thing to a creature with wings? But Sa’an knows that people do do such things.
It was the Wild family that she thought about last night when Sa’an and her father were watching Q&A on the television, when that Christian man talked about the bond between a man and a woman and their children. Mr. and Mrs. Wild were very proud and doting on their daughter, Patty, but Sa’an knew her to be a bit stand-offish – someone once said.
She is aware that the light is fading.
Mrs. Liatov is in hospital at the moment so Mr. Liatov, after changing his clothes, drives with their three children, Mark, Sally, and Ivan, to visit her in the hospital. She will be home in three days. Mrs. Liatov is a very large woman who, apparently, has a golden heart.
Michelle Aboud lives right next door and Sa’an supposes that she is her own best friend although no one, not even Michelle or Sa’an, have said as much. Michelle always calls her by her full name, Sara-Ann, but most people when they have the opportunity call her Sa’an. Oh! she thinks; no. She realizes she hasn’t heard her name, Sa’an, spoken since her mother left. She thinks of herself as Sa’an but now it is only Michelle who actually speaks her name, Sara-Ann. Maybe she should begin to think of herself as Sara-Ann because that is the only name that someone says. Michelle says it. Sa’an, I mean Sara-Ann, is worried now about which name is hers. But it is this special treatment that Sa’an knows makes her feel this way towards her neighbour. Michelle’s parents have a fruit and vegetable shop in the main street near the train station. They work together, live together, do everything together so Sa’an imagines that they are never apart. She wonders what that would feel like.
Mr. and Mrs. Achebe were the first black people Sa’an had ever seen. They are from Africa. There was some problem when they moved in but Sa’an could never quite work out what it was all about. They have seven children, all as black as each other; made more so by their very white, and large, teeth. They are certainly all the children of Mr. Achebe who has the largest white teeth Sa’an has ever seen. Mrs. Achebe always wears very colorful clothes and a long brightly colored headdress. Sa’an has always wanted to watch as Mrs. Achebe constructs it on her head. Of course Sa’an would not dare to ask, she just wonders. She also wonders what it would be like to have a mother that everyone looks at.
The Munro’s house is locked and silent: the whole family is in New Zealand on a very happy holiday.
The Sanderson’s are Quakers; and the two Sanderson children, Shanti and Gordy, play violins, go to prayer gatherings, or whatever they are called, and pretty much keep to themselves. Sa’an is always curious about what they eat for dinner, even more curious than she is about what the Achebe’s eat for dinner, even though Sa’an knows that this country doesn’t have any of the African animals and probably not the same vegetables either. She suspects that because the Sanderson’s are rarely seen they generate more curiosity. She wonders if other children are curious about what the Sanderson’s eat for dinner, or is it just her. They seem more like four adults living together than a family of parents and children.
The Christian man on the television last night talked a lot about parents and children. The other people on the panel seemed to be in favor of anyone having children, even two men, or two women. Sa’an didn’t quite understand what the conversation was about and she could never ask. Her father doesn’t like questions. Besides, what words would she use? She has no idea. However, it was clear to her that the Christian man was saying things that the other panel members, especially the women, did not like. When one of the women on the panel seemed to be criticizing the Christian man the audience applauded very loudly. The Christian man kept talking about the bond between parents and children and that parents had to be a man and woman and that two men adopting a baby was breaking that bond: the bond between a mother and her child. Sa’an kept wondering what did he mean. What is a bond? She could not work out what he was talking about and why he was so disliked by the women on the panel. A woman from the audience was allowed to ask a question. She asked the Christian man what he thought a family was. He said that a family was a man and a woman living with their own children in a loving environment. Yes, Sa’an thought, she only had to look out the window to know that that was true.
Sa’an looks at her watch. Oh dear! She only has ten minutes of watching time left. She moves her chair a bit, straightens her skirt over her knees; such formalities give importance to her task, and she leans her nose against the chilled glass of her window that she cleaned only an hour earlier. She concentrates on what she can see in the fading light.
Mr. Wild is watering his Zinnias. Mrs. Achebe comes out of her house and calls her children; she calls five names, two children must be already inside; a string of five names that sound like singing, which Sa’an thinks is the most beautiful sound she has ever heard. Mrs. Achebe calls once, twice, like a melody, but only twice; and see? There they come, running with their arms flapping like wings, with their colours, stripes and patterns all jumbled up like pretty birds flying home to their nest; they haven’t a care in the world. Sa’an smiles sadly and her head tips slightly to the side like an old woman does when reminded by youngsters of what she used to be. Soon Mr. Wild will be inside too and the street will be quiet as all the families sit down together to eat their dinner. She knows that usually these families talk to each other while they are eating. Sa’an wonders how they could do that without making a big mess, and if they do the meal must go on for hours and hours. She does not understand what this could be like
As the light fades even further she tries to see any movements through front windows and lace curtains; but all she sees are the warm golden glows, evidence of family lives going on just as they should, except the Munro’s house, of course. They’re on holidays, remember?
Ah! She hears a car pull into the downstairs garage. She hears a door slam and then footsteps thudding on the stairs up to her tiny room. Her door squeaks open – I must get that oiled tomorrow, she thinks – and then the unmistakable sound of a belt being whipped from its trouser loops, and then a zip. Sa’an closes her eyes and waits, conscious of darkness now all around, inside and out, and thinks of nicer things: her lonely housework, another session of watching time: tomorrow, then … well … another new day will begin all over again.